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Kandahar and Grassroots Statebuilding

Winter 2011 Features

Kandahar and Grassroots Statebuilding

featuregrassrootsThe stubborn Afghan theatre may very well be the incubator for new experiments in bottom-up stabilization of war-torn states

Ten years ago, a new US President took office promising to put an end to American involvement in statebuilding. His principal foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was famously quoted during the 2000 election campaign as dismissing the painstaking work of strengthening weak governments abroad, saying: “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

The Bush administration’s early disdain for statebuilding was understandable, for it is a lengthy and costly endeavour with a mixed record of success. Few countries would engage in statebuilding if they could avoid it.

Unfortunately, the ensuing decade demonstrated that it cannot be avoided. Today, the same army division cited by Rice is deployed as part of the largest statebuilding enterprise of our times, in the Afghan province of Kandahar. The attacks of 9/11, planned in that same province, demonstrated the enduring threat that fragile states pose to international peace and security. As long as that threat endures, the US and its allies will be in the statebuilding business.

Experience has proved that there are no viable alternatives to the slow and messy process of building states where they have collapsed. Narrow counter-terrorism missions to kill violent extremists bring no more than temporary results, and can often exacerbate the problem by generating new recruits. Outright annexation of lawless territories by other states has quite rightly been eliminated from the list of morally acceptable options. And Afghanistan in the 1990s demonstrated what happens when the international community gives into the temptation to simply let a state collapse.

Rather than hope for statebuilding to go away, we should think of it as a permanent feature of international politics – at least one that will be with us as long as we face the threat of fragile states. Some states may contribute more than others, but ultimately all who depend on a stable world order will depend on continued efforts to shore up and rebuild these states.

If statebuilding will play a prominent role in international security efforts for the foreseeable future, the US and its allies should prepare for it. As it turns out, NATO has introduced a promising new approach to statebuilding in the same province that forced it back up to the top of the international security agenda – Kandahar. Lessons learned in that most unstable of Afghan provinces, combined with vast military and civilian resources, have led to a model that offers more general, important lessons for future efforts to manage fragile states. The new model might be called ‘grassroots statebuilding.’

Canada assumed responsibility for Kandahar province in 2005 as part of the effort to extend NATO’s reach throughout Afghanistan. Canada’s military quickly found itself engaged in the toughest combat that it had faced in two generations. It was not simply the strength of the Taliban resurgence that caught the Canadians by surprise, but also the glacial pace at which institution-building at the national level trickled down to the population in Afghanistan’s second largest city and its environs. Some ministries succeeded more than others, but, in general, the Afghan people saw far too little actual change in their daily lives. If statebuilding is about connecting the government to the population, then the heavy focus on strengthening Afghan institutions was not bearing fruit.

Over the course of 2008 and 2009, Canada instigated two changes that shifted the focus to the population in Kandahar. The first was to concentrate its statebuilding efforts at the provincial level, dedicating 50 percent of its development assistance to Kandahar, and deploying an unprecedented number of civilian employees into the conflict-ridden province. The ambitions of the mission were narrowed to six priorities – all designed to equip the government to provide for its citizens in the areas of security, basic services and humanitarian assistance. The programmes to implement these priorities were designed in a way that would deliver tangible results in the lives of Afghans.

The UN and other donors were worried that this would undermine efforts to create a strong central government, but if the population saw little of that government outside of Kabul, what good would it do?

The second change was to restructure the military mission around a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency. To apply the central tenet of modern counterinsurgency – protecting the population – NATO troops in Kandahar needed to live with that population on a sustained basis. They moved out of large, protected bases and established a presence at the level of individual communities.

Taken together, these changes greatly expanded the contact that all international representatives could have with the people of Kandahar. As political officers and aid workers joined civil affairs soldiers in these communities, engaging with a wide range of Kandaharis on a daily basis, they began to develop a more holistic understanding of how the collective effort of the panoply of development, reconstruction, stabilization, governance and peace-building programmes played out in the life of individual Afghans.

These changes brought a new focus to the plethora of strategic plans designed in Kabul and NATO capitals by bringing them back to the intended beneficiary – the Afghan citizen. While some national-level programmes clearly did have an impact, far too many remained well-intentioned plans the implementation of which had been held up by a thousand different unanticipated challenges. Working day in and day out with Afghans allowed NATO civilians to bring government authorities right into these communities, and to design solutions to the problems that they found.

However, it took the tremendous resources that the US began to invest in southern Afghanistan in 2009 to translate these changes of direction into a new approach to statebuilding. President Obama’s decision to commit an additional 50,000 troops and billions of dollars in development assistance to Afghanistan targeted Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand, in particular. Over the course of 2009 and early 2010, some 10,000 additional US troops were deployed to Kandahar – more than tripling the Canadian contingent. USAID launched hundreds of millions of dollars in new assistance programmes, and dozens of US government civilians joined the scores of Canadian civilians already on the ground.

This was to be much more than a quantitative change in the effort. With new US resources, NATO backed a counterinsurgency strategy that went far beyond narrow counter-terrorist tactics to undermine the Taliban. The goal was to restore the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the population. In a remarkable turn, the full weight of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan was devoted to the objective of improving governance. US Generals McCrystal and Petraeus fundamentally reorganized the mission to achieve this goal.

The new strategy has been operationalized in Kandahar in a plan called Hamkari – Pashto for ‘Cooperation.’ It is led by Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa, in full partnership with NATO forces and the Canadian/US Provincial Reconstruction Team serving as the secretariat for Governor Wesa’s leadership.

Hamkari has been called a ‘governance-led operation,’ because it subordinates all military and civilian efforts of NATO countries in Kandahar to the overall goal of connecting the government to the population. What makes Hamkari unique is that it structures the international effort from the bottom up. The capacity of institutions being built from the top down in Kabul means little if they do not affect the lives of individual Afghans. So, Hamkari established a cycle of engagement between Kandaharis and their government representatives to forge a connection that had not yet materialized.

The cycle begins and ends with the population. Though a continual process, it consists of three phases.

1) Listen to the population

Hamkari uses a grievance-based methodology. This means that the starting point for the process is not the needs of the government, but rather the needs of individual Afghans at the level of their communities. The bigger NATO footprint allows for a much broader and systematic engagement with the population. US and Canadian soldiers and civilians now live and work throughout the key populated areas of Kandahar, seeking to understand how Afghans view the situation confronting them, the principal problems, and what they believe the solutions to be. They work in support of Afghan government representatives, bringing them to these districts to meet with the population and to listen to their needs.

2) Help the government respond

Identifying the population’s needs will serve no purpose if the international community rushes in to address them. The key is to equip the government to respond, and to ensure that it gets the associated credit to the extent possible. The profusion of initiatives to improve security, open health clinics, rebuild schools and create jobs is compiled into district-level plans that allow government officials to set priorities and coordinate delivery.

3) Let the population judge the results

Not all needs can be met, and not all plans can be implemented successfully. If they are to buy into this process, Afghans must be given the opportunity to voice their opinions on how well the government is doing. If it is not performing to their standard, then they must be able to hold it to account. Those same government leaders who listen to their grievances and coordinate response must face the music.

The ideas behind a grassroots approach to statebuilding are not novel. Counterinsurgency doctrine holds that the population must be the ‘centre of gravity’ of the mission. And aid professionals have long recognized that development occurs more quickly and more sustainably when programmes are ‘owned’ at the local level. The most successful development programme in Afghanistan – the National Solidarity Program – incorporates this into its design of community councils, which determine their own needs and draw down funds to address them.

The novel element of grassroots statebuilding is the manner in which these ideas are implemented. Hamkari is implemented at the level of government closest to the population – at the district level. The six districts with the largest population each have a District Stabilization Team (DST) composed of civilian personnel attached to the NATO company responsible for military operations. The team helps the principal government representative – the District Leader – to expand his efforts to listen to the population. The District Leader’s own networks are complemented by reaching out to marginalized or even hostile elements of the population. Councils of community and tribal leaders are made as representative as possible to provide a balanced view of the people’s grievances.

A rigorous planning process then matches the grievances identified with any available government programmes that can be drawn down to the district level. Often, the principal obstacle is the lack of ministry representatives to deliver programmes – either because the positions are vacant or because incumbents are reluctant to leave the safety of Kandahar City. The DST identifies where existing programmes can be applied, and helps the District Leader reach up to higher levels of government to respond to the grievances brought forward.

With hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of programmes underway in Kandahar, the government does have the means to deliver on some of its commitments. But it must do more than deliver: it must also demonstrate to the population that it is delivering. A strategic communications campaign helps the government publicize progress, and gives profile to the Governor and other leaders. This involves building up independent media that can be objective and credible conduits to the population, then systematically putting up the Governor, the Mayor of Kandahar City and the District Leaders before the microphones to explain what they are doing to address the needs of their constituents.

Finally, the population gets an opportunity to judge the performance of the government. They do so through regular shuras, or councils composed of key community representatives. The shuras of key districts engage regularly with the Governor to provide the population’s views on how the campaign is proceeding, and to give feedback to improve the government’s performance. The Governor travels systematically to the principal districts, ensuring that he can engage with communities in each an average of once per two months.

In some sense, the ongoing conversation is more important than the actual content in connecting a government to its citizens. To citizens of a country that has not had a functioning state for more than a generation, the act of speaking out and having those in power respond is an important first step to establishing confidence.

Kandahar is a deeply troubled province at the heart of the insurgency. It remains beset by violence, plagued by issues of corruption and by the pervasive influence of powerbrokers. The uncertainty over the longevity of NATO’s presence also raises legitimate questions about the long-term outcome of progress to date.

But there does appear to be progress – significant news in itself after years of misery in Kandahar. The goal set by Governor Wesa was to make the government of Afghanistan more present, representative and responsive in Kandahar. That modest objective is likely to be met, as capacity has already grown, and as the full range of government programmes supported by NATO comes online. Quick-impact projects have brought thousands of temporary jobs, and development projects like the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam irrigation system are leading to longer-term employment opportunities. The most notorious jail in the country at Sarpoza has become one of its best run. The press is free from government interference – giving Kandaharis credible sources of information on events in their province. That press is even running positive stories about the performance of the Afghan National Police for the first time in years.

Is the government better connected to the population after all this effort? Will this translate into reduced violence and a respite for the war-weary Kandaharis? The jury is still out. Still, Kandahar has already produced some lessons for statebuilding efforts elsewhere.

One lesson that evidently leaps out is that the population must be at the very centre of the statebuilding effort. Over the years, the international community has learned that success does not lie with the adoption of liberal democratic ideology itself, or by backing the right leader. Institutions matter. But, ultimately, institutions matter because of what they deliver for the people. In other words, institutions are means, not ends. Statebuilding efforts must look beyond government institutions to the actual impact that they are having on the population.

This focus on the population also addresses one of the central hurdles to effective statebuilding: the deep cultural differences between a country like Afghanistan and the West. Western governments may have views about which institutions – from large, centralized ministries to an all-powerful presidency – would best address Afghan needs Those institutions may serve the interests of government officials, but if the population sees them as a foreign imposition, then those institutions will not enjoy the legitimacy that they need to be effective. By continually listening to the population and addressing their concerns, statebuilding can create institutions that are better suited to the local culture.

The first task of statebuilders must therefore be to engage the people of the country recovering from conflict. For local communities to buy into the new political order, exemplified by Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government, they must believe that government is not only capable of listening, but also willing to listen, to them; not at the level of abstraction imagined from the national level – where millions of citizens’ individual needs are aggregated – but rather at the level of individual communities with their varied and particular concerns. By engaging Kandaharis in their communities, international representatives on the ground developed a better understanding of Afghan needs and aspirations.

A second lesson is that the best level at which to coordinate government and international efforts may not be in capital cities, where politicians, senior officials, generals and ambassadors wrestle with the challenges of building national institutions. Indeed, if the focus is on the population, then perhaps programmes are better coordinated at the level at which they impact communities. Bringing the range of programmes together at the district level, where their combined impact on individual Afghans can be observed, increases the chances that programmes have consequences in reality – and not just in well-intentioned plans.

A final lesson must be that if the mission is to focus on the population, then international personnel must live as close to the population as possible. As US Secretary of State Clinton recognized, governments will need to deploy large numbers of civilians into conflict environments if the US and its allies are to do a better job of statebuilding. This must include all of the training and language skills that civilians need to do the job effectively.

The international community will continue to be drawn into the messy process of building states for as long as it takes to invent a more practical alternative. As statebuilding is a fundamentally political exercise, it is subject to the same fundamental rule: that all politics is local. And the most durable solutions are those that address needs from the bottom up.


Ben Rowswell was Director of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team until July 2010. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not reflect the views of the Canadian government.

(Illustration: Dan Page)

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